Over the years, I’ve written a lot of editorials at election time, saying get out and vote. It’s your civic duty, and your voice at the ballot box does count. At times, I’ve endorsed a politician. At times, a school referendum.

Today’s a little different: I’m endorsing myself :)

A poem of mine, published in February 2013, is up for a Reader’s Choice Award from the literary journal that published it. So here is your chance to weigh in, cast a ballot (get a little practice before the 2016 general elections!), and also get engaged a little with the literary community.

The timing, from my view, is interesting: my poem that is up for the award is “Where the Music Died,” based on the day I took my mom out to the Buddy Holly plane crash site not far south of where I live. This past weekend was the anniversary of the plane crash, which also killed the pop stars Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake marked the anniversary, as it does every year, with its annual Winter Dance Party series of concerts.

District Lit, based in northern Virginia, made the announcement today about the Reader’s Choice Award. From the announcement:

District Lit will honor one fiction writer and one poet with the 2015 District Lit Readers’ Choice Award. Winners will be promoted at District Lit’s booth at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis and will see their work in print, also to be available at AWP. 

Vote for your favorite poem and fiction piece published in District Lit using this survey link or by going to the “2015 Readers’ Choice Awards” page at districtlit.com. To ensure your vote has been tallied, please enter your email address and press the “submit” button at the bottom of the survey. Only one vote per email address is accepted. All pieces published in District Lit through December 31, 2014 are eligible for the Readers’ Choice Awards. [AWP is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Its annual convention is a big thing, especially among college creative writing programs. And other authors.]

The Readers’ Choice Award contest will be open from Friday, February 6 through Friday, March 6, 2015.

We will announce the winners before AWP in a special update to District Lit, as well as through our e-mail list, Twitter, and Facebook.

Here is my poem. If you like it, I’d like your vote!


Where the Music Died

Dana Yost


It’s where the music died

the place she has thought about,

off and on, for fifty-three years:

the farm field, the bodies flung

from the falling, thudding plane

into the ice and snow and dirt.

Now she is here, a graying, ill woman,

still younger than Buddy Holly would have been,

still older than Richie Valens would have been.

It’s Holly she’s come for:

The strong-jawed Texan,

defiant in the studio,

defiant in his music — guitars of rage and rebellion and youth,

lyrics of such ferocity that she knew he not only understood love,

but had plunged a fist into the blood and meat of it, found its heart.

Barbed-wire, concrete block, daddy’s crossed-arms: None

stand a chance stopping a fire like that.

And what girl wouldn’t want that?

We’ve taken her there, north of Clear Lake.

Not much of a shrine, the simplicity, the absence

of commercialism, is a nod, it’s said,

to modesty and the sanctity of death.

But it is so modest as to be cheapened,

I think: a super-sized, sheet-metaled pair of black

horn-rimmed glasses at the road side,

and, in the field itself, a pair of shiny silver metal cut-outs,

on the lip of a field path, pressed against barbed-wire

separating a corn field from a soybean field.

The crash site is kitsch site, too. Fans, tourists

leave random personal belongings beneath the two markers,

scarves, beads, bottle of cologne, glasses, plastic flowers, combs, small change:

it’s as if someone dumped a purse upside down.

My mother says a couple things about this, but otherwise

is content to stand where the singers died,

to think of a past where she was a beauty: spry,

a cheerleader, eye-catcher of young men in two states.

Music does this, of course, lets us hum through time, place, memory.

So does thinking about death.

The crash site gives both,

and my mother shuffles her feet through the little piles

of debris, making her way around the markers, nearly

getting snagged by the fencing.

Ground lightning off to the west. But she’s in no hurry.

Is she saying a graveside prayer?

Maybe singing “Oh Boy,” to herself.

We take some photos.

Then she speaks, saying something about Buddy Holly’s wife

being pregnant when he died —

his young wife.

On our way back to the car, I tap my fingers

on the steel of the big pair of glasses,

and they make a slight pinging noise.

I’d like to say it sounds like a guitar chord, but it doesn’t.

It just sounds like sheet metal in the open air of Iowa,

in a place where men died.

The Cat In The Room

Posted: February 5, 2015 in Uncategorized


I don’t often reblog what other people have written, if I ever do. But my friend Hugh Curtket had written such a remarkable piece here that otherscrealky need to see it.

Originally posted on hughcurtler:

In a comment on a previous post I was trying to make myself understood by my good friend Dana about the various colors in ethics — black, white, and gray. In doing so I came to realize that I could be clearer about where I stand on the issue. And where I stand is not where many others stand, so it behooves me to make my position clear in case it might be close to the truth, as I like to think it is. The issue surrounds the question of whether there is a right and wrong in ethics.

The prevailing opinion as late as the medieval period was that there is a clear difference between the two, an absolute right and an absolute wrong. The Church, of course, knew the difference and if men and women were in a moral quandary they would simply ask the priest. And if…

View original 775 more words

Got a couple of pieces of good news this morning.

My poem “Among Old Graves” has been chosen for Kind of A Hurricane Press’ annual best-of-the-year poetry anthology. Kind of a Hurricane publishes four online literary journals and a handful of print anthologies throughout the year. “Among Old Graves” first was chosen for one of the print anthologies. The annual best-of anthologies draw from what Kind of a Hurricane published throughout the year in its journals and print works.

The best-of-the-year anthologies are nice, print editions which usually include a range of works and poets, including Pushcart Prize winners and Best of the Net winners. Last year, Phil Dacey, a multiple Pushcart winner, was chosen, as was I.

This year, Kind of a Hurricane itself has nominated six of the poems it’s including in the anthology for Pushcart Prizes. So, pretty good company to be in.

Also, I received the proof copy of venerable historian Joseph Amato’s upcoming work The Book of Twos. It’s exciting personally because I wrote the foreword to the book. Yep. For me, it’s exciting, and maybe even surprising. First time I’ve written a foreword for a serious, major history work.

This is a heavy-duty academic history book, largely on the history of ideas and thought, religion and politics. The history of history, in a way, or, maybe, history of how history is shaped. And Amato, of course, is a heavy-duty history writer, one of the very best in his field. He is retired from Southwest Minnesota State University, but continues to be a prolific author — new books, new essays, now even venturing into poetry. I helped Joe edit The Book of Twos, and am grateful that he asked me to write the foreword. Even though I read a lot of history works, there were times in reading Joe’s deep academic book here when I wondered if I was in over my head. I probably was. But Joe and I swapped a lot of emails and he helped me learn as I read his book, and I am grateful he trusted me enough to do the foreword.

Both of these works will be coming out soon. I’ll let you know when they are available.

I started my day by reading Leo Dangel poems, including “High School Reunion Dance,” a spare, plainspoken piece about a man slow-dancing with a former classmate, a once-unattractive adolescent now a beautiful woman married to a North Dakota wheat farmer.

When I finished, I instantly though of Philip Roth’s great novel American Pastoral, which begins with a high school reunion dance, too, Roth’s great character Nathan Zuckerman cuddled close to a former classmate. Right there, on the dance floor, Zuckerman tells himself a story that becomes stories within stories until, suddenly, the novel is a powerful saga of destruction, the falling apart of a world and a soul: urban America from the 1940s through the 1960s and personal tragedy that would have made the Greeks weep.

Funny, or maybe it’s brilliant, how one deceptively sweet, simple piece of writing can transform your day, can carry you away.


I will be one of three authors at a book-signing from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. this Saturday (Dec. 6) at Marshall’s downtown arts center.

The event is part of the ongoing Read Local program, which highlights books by local and regional authors. The books are for sale at the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council’s center. Currently, the center stocks my book The Right Place, the collection of essays and poems about people and places in the Midwest — southwest Minnesota in particular — and how they enrich our qualify of life. Among the people profiled in the book are former Minneota Mayor Paul Larson, the late author Bill Holm, the late Ellen Skramstad of Marshall, and a friend of mine who, at the time I was working on the book, was in the midst of a life-changing family crisis. That one is one of my favorite essays, ever. It starts this way: “Walking around the corner of a row of bookshelves on the second floor of the Barnes and Noble bookstore in downtown Minneapolis, I nearly ran into a dark-haired woman.”

In The Right Place, I also profile a pair of local veterans who fought at D-Day, and write about the Minnesota Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls — a testament to how being proactive in the face of steep and often hard rural changes can keep a place viable. And there’s more … come to the arts center on Saturday, and I’ll be happy to sign your book!

The other two authors who will be there are both from Marshall: Kendall Bailey and Cindy Bader.

A news release from Read Local says that Bailey has “written a paranormal / horror novel called The Bad that was inspired by the old school for the blind building in Gary, S.D.” Bader is the author of Beautiful Deception, a coming-of-age Christian novel that blends humor, drama and romance.

There are a lot of good books available at MAFAC, good Christmas-gift ideas (hint, hint!) I hope to see you there!

A publishing friend once told me that one of the real tests of a writer is what he does after his first book is published:

Does he have another book in him, and will it be any good?

Joe Wilkins doesn’t have to worry about that test.

His first book was published in 2012 and, this month, Wilkins is out with his sixth book since then — the poetry chapbook Leviathan. It not only continues his remarkably prolific burst of writing, but further strengthens the case that Wilkins is among the best young writers working today.

In Leviathan, a prize-winning collection published by Iron Horse Literary Review, Wilkins’ voice has all of the passion and ability to evoke intimate truths that defined his previous books. That allows Leviathan, at 40 pages, to pack the punch of a much larger book. Indeed, it is a “giant of a book with big-soul poems,” in the words of poet and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Laurie Kutchins.

Wilkins was the creative writing director at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, until two years ago, and now teaches at Linden College in McMinnville, Ore. Several of the poems in Leviathan are set in north Iowa, yet the more consistent setting of the works is in places deep in the soul. Wilkins celebrates some of those places. But just as often, the book is soul-aching because he explores places or mental states that are bleak, teetering on life or death, or just lives of despair. Yet, what makes Wilkins’ work so strong is that even when he’s writing about misery, he does it beautifully.

The language of his poems at times resembles that of the great Leo Dangel’s poems of life in the rural Midwest. Wilkins is at least one generation younger, maybe two, than Dangel. But where Dangel was shaped by a not-easy youth in not-wealthy farmland in South Dakota, Wilkins comes from a not-easy youth in barely-getting-by ranch country on dry, broken land in Montana. Some strong parallels there. And such backgrounds help lead to powerful images and metaphors, both lovely and grim: skies gray as dishrags, a godwracked man, “day breaking down the blue spine of a brown trout.”

The poems are sometimes interwoven with a romantic’s hope or, perhaps more often, with a realist’s knowledge that hard lives will sometimes stay hard. It’s a low-to-the-ground sensibility and study of both, seeing the dirt and sweat, yet also fully aware that nearly all of us — the great and the regular — have dreams and fears and reach for God or something to give us answers.

He ponders fatherhood and the joy of close-knit family. But he also gets that the world knows ache and failure, and often, death can hit quick — as when a river in Arkansas floods overnight and kills 16 people as they camp.

Wilkins catches the sounds of nature —“an old bullfrog thuwmped,” “the whine and haw of a locust.” Language also shines in the compound adjectives he creates, and often in cadences and phrasing that recall Old Testament prophets who gain momentum in their words by swinging a pendulum of sentences, until there’s a vortex that pulls you in and bowls you over.

In one poem, he starts at a redemption center in north Iowa, where people can turn in their recycled pop cans, beer bottles and whiskey bottles for cash. The piece becomes both a play on the word redemption and a serious musing/debate over the act of Christian redemption. “And I heard / in that awful silence the pure, sad surprise / of what the final reckoning must hold.”

• Another Forest City author, Barb Mills — who writes mystery novels under the name Bartenn Mills — is out this month with her second novel, Bishop Bewitched.

It’s also her second set in the fictional town of Garfield Falls, featuring the police detective Vincent Bishop. (The first book is Bishop to Queen’s Knight.)

Bishop Bewitched starts with the detective getting a pre-dawn phone call from his chief. There’s a dead body to look into.

“Bunch of old women out in a field doing voodoo spells. One of them dropped dead. Paramedics wouldn’t touch her. You go in, see what’s what. …”

Sounds like an invitation, not only for Bishop but for Mills’ readers.


Here’s an excellent gift idea for poetry or literature lovers on your holiday lists this year: Kind of a Hurricane Press’ best-of-2013 anthology is now available in most major bookstores and through multiple online retailers. The anthology, titled Storm Cycle, is the annual print-version collection of the best work published throughout the year in Kind of A Hurricane Press’ eight online literary journals.

Two of my poems are included in the best-of-2013 anthology: “A Light of their Own,” and “The Lonely Stalk Their Front-Room Windows At Night.”

There is also a poem by Phil Dacey, as well as many other works that make this a strong anthology.

My book The Right Place will continue to be available at Marshall’s downtown arts center, after it was chosen yesterday to be among the books offered for the second session of the Read Local Southwest Minnesota program.

I’ve written about the program before, and it’s a good one — important and filling a vital hole in Marshall and the area, where there is no longer a retail book store. Through Read Local, books by regional authors can be purchased at the MAFAC arts center, which is filling a role similar to a retailer’s. The hard work behind the program is being done by Steve Linstrom, an author, home-beer-brewer, former Schwan Food Co. exec, who is a whirl of commitment to seeing local authors reach a local audience.

My book The Right Place was published in 2010 by Ellis Press. It is a collection of essays and poems, mostly about people or issues in southwest Minnesota or the rural Midwest. I also wrote short essays or profiles on a handful of authors from the area: Howard Mohr, Bill Holm, Adrian Louis and Cy Molitor, who compiled a book and digital library of every grave in Lyon County, Minnesota. There are few personal essays in The Right Place, as well, including one of the favorite pieces I’ve ever written, titled “Faith in Nothing: Corporate Casualty.”

The books of several other area authors will also be available at the arts center in session two of Read Local, including James Zarzana, Joel Minett, Joe Amato, Linstrom himself, and the terrific poet from Morris, Minn., Athena Kildegaard.


Hemingway speaks

Posted: October 18, 2014 in Archived Blogs, Blogs
Tags: , ,

I’ve always liked this audio recording of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. His voice and his diction have an odd affectation to them, but the words themselves are somewhat like a “Gettysburg Address” for writers — a short speech, precisely and effectively compressing much of the essence of Hemingway’s philosophy of what a writer must do to write.

Click here to listen.

It never hurts to read books to learn something, to be entertained, to be taken away to a different place or time, or thrust into the middle of someone’s intense conversation.

Sometimes, though, it also never hurts to stop and pull out a pen and draw big circles around or stars next to passages of writing so striking and memorable that they are worth remembering not for the riddle they solve or the adventure they sweep us into — but because they are beautiful.

Beautiful writing, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction.

Beautiful writing, paragraphs or stanzas you go back and read again, and maybe again, sounding out the words, marveling at the art, the mastery.

Here’s a collection of some beautiful passages I’ve read in recent days.

  • The first is from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” the groundbreaking piece of feminist literary criticism.

In this section, she’s using food or a meal as metaphor for writing, for women being given (or giving themselves) a stronger voice in what is written and how it’s viewed. The churches and dining halls at Oxford and Cambridge were men-only when she wrote this in the 1920s, so she compares them to literature, with women being denied a substantial role. The result is a men-only meal, but, thus, a really dingy, plain and often ugly meal. Who can live on that, she says.

This comes after an awful dinner in a great hall at Cambridge: a plain gravy soup, homely potatoes and greens, the sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge. Prunes and custard followed. Biscuits and cheese, with a water jug passed around because the biscuits were dry. “That was all…” She’s miffed that these people could have “denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years and not yet given to the poor.”

“…The meal was over. Everybody scraped their chairs back; the swing-doors swung violently to and fro; soon the ball was emptied of every sign of food and made ready no doubt for breakfast next morning. Down corridors and up staircases the youth of England went banging and singing. And it was for a guest, a stranger (for I had no more right here in Fernham than in Trinity or Somerville or Girton or Newnham or Christchurch, to say, “The dinner was not good,” or to say (we were now, Mary Seton and I, in her sitting-room), “Could we not have dined up here alone?” for if I had said anything of the kind I should have been prying and searching into the secret economies of a house which to the stranger wears so fine a front of gaiety and courage. No, one could say nothing of the sort. Indeed, conversation for a moment flagged. The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes. We are all probably going to heaven, and [the painter] Vandyck is, we hope, to meet us round the next corner—that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that beef and prunes at the end of the day’s work breed between them. Happily my friend, who taught science, had a cupboard where there was a squat bottle and little glasses—(but there should have been sole and partridge to begin with)—so that we were able to draw up to the fire and repair some of the damage of the day’s living.”

  • This is from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitri Karamazov is in jail, awaiting the start of his murder trial. Most of the evidence is stacked against him, but he says he no longer fears his fate, telling his visiting brother Alexey:

“You wouldn’t believe, Alexey, how I want to live now, what a thirst for existence and consciousness has sprung up in me within these peeling walls. … And what is suffering? I’m not afraid of it, even if it were beyond reckoning. I am not afraid of it now. I was afraid of it before. … And I seem to have such strength in me now, that I think I could withstand any suffering, only to be able to say and to repeat to myself every moment, ‘I exist.’ In thousands of agonies—I exist! I see the sun, and if I don’t see the sun, I know its there. And there’s a whole life in knowing that the sun is there.”

  • This is from Philip Dacey’s poem, “Butterly: Upon Mistyping ‘Butterfly’”

I love you butterly, butterly woman,

who melts in my mouth.

My margarine life is over, thanks to you.

And from Dacey’s ‘Lifeboats,” where he describes what it’s like for him – a longtime professor – to sit in on a college philosophy class taught by his son Austin.

Now Austin’s talking ethical choices,

as prisoner either kill one fellow prisoner

and save the rest or refuse to kill any,

though all will then, by design of the captors, die.

Bentham says kill the one, the end is good;

Kant none, our acts are us, and nothing else.


Soon I am weeping, not, I think for any prisoners

who might die, or for one faced

with an impossible, a killing choice

guaranteed to leave the chooser’s

peace of mind dead either way

and choice suddenly no choice at all,


but for something I can only guess at, the loss

of the child my son once was

or the beauty of the man he has become,

heroic in this time and place, facing

the most benign of enemies, youth

not fully awakened to the world.

(Both Dacey poems appear in his new book Church of the Adagio)


  • From Joel Dias-Porter, and his poem “Elegy Indigo”

“Finally, finally, I believe in loss as a way of knowing.”


  • Adam Zagajewski’s entire poem “Auto Mirror”

“In the rear-view mirror suddenly

I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral;

great things dwell in small ones

for a moment.”


  • The former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser wrote a beautiful small book of prose, published in 2010, called “Lights on a Ground of Darkness.” The simplicity of its language and description, his way of seeing the everyday, has as much beauty as an elaborate cathedral. Maybe more.

“Summer, 1949. Above the Mississippi, the noon sun bleaches the blue from a cloudless midsummer sky. So high in their flight that they might be no more than tiny motes afloat on the surface of the eye, a few cliff swallows dive and roll. At the base of the shadowy bluffs a highway weaves through the valley, its surface shimmering like a field of wheat; to the south, a semi loaded with squealing hogs shifts down for the slow crawl up out of the bottoms and into the bright, flat cornfields of eastern Iowa. The bitter odor of exhaust clings like spider webs to the long grass lining the shoulders of the road. Toward the top of the grade the sound of the engine levels out into a brash and steady saxophone note that rattles back through the cut, and then, with a fading whine, the truck is gone, leaving the hot road shining empty down the length of the valley.”